Cyberthreats, foreign intervention loom over upcoming Israeli election

Foreign countries and non-state players are attempting to affect the outcome of upcoming elections in Israel by spreading conspiracy theories and lies on social media.

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election
(photo credit: REUTERS)

As the date of the next election in Israel comes closer, so do the attempts to intervene in them, and meddle with the results, experts tell The Media Line. 

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“There are two types of threats on elections, when it comes to the cyber dimension,” says Col. Gabi Siboni, the director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and Cyber Security Program at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security". 

He maps out the possible risks in an interview with The Media Line. “The first kind is hacking the very systems Israel is using in the elections. This could allow meddling with results, recounting the votes and other frauds,” he said. “The other type, however, includes using social networks to spread false information and affect public opinion.”

When it comes to solutions, it’s unclear if there are any, Siboni says. “The first threat is easier to deal with, you use cybersecurity experts. The second one, however, is much more complicated. It’s especially challenging because democracy always strives to allow freedom of expression, and this threat is based on it,” he said.

This sort of attack on public opinion, including misinformation and the spreading of conspiracy theories, isn’t familiar in many other places in the world.

People sort ballot boxes as part of preparations for the upcoming Israeli election, during a briefing for members of the media at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham, Israel March 6, 2019 (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)People sort ballot boxes as part of preparations for the upcoming Israeli election, during a briefing for members of the media at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham, Israel March 6, 2019 (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The goal in election interference: Subverting democracy

The main actor using bots and fake users to spread lies and meddle in other elections is Russia, experts say. 

“We’ve seen this sort of meddling done by Russia in many places around the world: in the US elections, during Brexit, and in elections in Africa,” Achiya Schatz, executive director of the disinformation watchdog Fake Reporter, told The Media Line. “We don’t even deal with cyber so much. We trace suspicious activity on the web and try to find its source. Eventually our goal is to discover it and notify the public, because that’s the main thing you can do to harm the effectiveness of these campaigns,” he also said.

The goals are mostly the same, and are carried out by a mass of fake accounts, sharing wrong information, aiming to divide society and radicalize the public discussion, according to Schatz. 

“The goal is to destabilize democratic countries, by sowing doubts about the very legitimacy of institutions.”

Achiya Schatz

“The goal is to destabilize democratic countries, by sowing doubts about the very legitimacy of institutions,” he explained. “A common and very dangerous pattern we recognize is bot nets spreading conspiracies about elections being rigged. That one is especially dangerous because it risks the very institution. They are chaos agents, basically. The parties behind these nets want disagreements to deepen, radicals to gain power and, eventually, destroy trust in the democratic system itself,” he said.

The most famous example of the results of such a campaign is the raid on the US Capitol by far-right wing activists, on January 6, 2021. 

“The idea that eventually led to the raid was exactly this: the elections have been stolen and are therefore not legitimate. We see very similar messages on Israeli networks, more and more, as elections are getting closer.”

Achiya Schatz

“The idea that eventually led to the raid was exactly this: the elections have been stolen and are therefore not legitimate. We see very similar messages on Israeli networks, more and more, as elections are getting closer,” he said. “These could be dividing messages coming from inside, as part of a political campaign, but sometimes we recognize there is an outer source to this. Telling which it is can be very hard many times.”

Israeli elections, bots and fighting election interference

Israel has passed a bill to fight such election interference for the November 1 election, which demands that any web campaigning will have to be officially recognized and the campaign will have to reveal who is funding it. “This will force at least some parties to take responsibilities for what they spread, and hopefully make it easier to reveal lies,” Schatz said.

The main beneficiaries of the current situation are the politicians, who can meddle with public opinion the way they want with no direct consequences on them, and also the social networks themselves, which enjoy increased traffic. “The companies [social media networks] never take responsibility, they don’t want to deal with this at all. And politicians have a lot to gain from this, because they use the same methods many times,” Schatz said. 

The main users of bot networks in Israel in recent years is the Likud Party. “No one, Right or Left, has similar numbers to them. There’s nothing like it in Israeli politics,” he added.

Fighting election interference: Recognizing fake news, fake profiles

Schatz’s initiative is pushing for information consumption education. “If you teach people to recognize fake profiles or fake news by how it is written and what is its source, it harms the effectiveness of such web campaigns,” he explained. “We are also hoping politicians will wake up and realize what’s at risk here, so we are trying to tell the public about the dangers. It’s the very essence of democracy we are talking about.”

Another action Schatz hopes will help is more people reporting about suspicious accounts. “We operate [in Fake Reporter] based on people’s inquiries. The more we have, the more we can track down and fight this phenomenon,” he said.

Israel’s official national election committee in a statement in response to The Media Line’s inquiry said that: “The Central Elections Committee carries out intensive and extensive activity in the field of systems and cyber defense. The committee works in close cooperation with the national cyber system and all security agencies in the State of Israel. The protection of the elections is characterized by a series of actions. Naturally, it is not possible to expand on what measures and methods are used as part of the preparation for the elections, because if they become known to the public, this may help those who seek to disrupt the elections.”